Why you should care
Because being homeless can be a game changer.
Wendel Dandridge, a religion professor at Clark Atlanta University, was nominated for the OZY Educator Award by Lidia Martinez, who wrote, “He helps others accomplish goals by teaching them to believe in themselves and seek out what they’re best at.”
During Atlanta’s sweltering summer of 2006, I spent seven months living out of the back of my ’98 black Chevy Blazer, tucked away in a corner of the second floor of Morehouse College’s on-campus parking garage. I had room for little more than my clothes and a small library of textbooks. I slept in the trunk of my SUV, with the windows cracked. When awake, I studied, read or prayed for strength and direction.
Shortly after sunrise each morning, I’d wait outside the nearby dormitory until the door swung open and a student walked out. Then I’d sneak in. I’d walk hurriedly to the first-floor communal bathroom, where I’d shower and get ready for class. I continued my routine for seven months.
I’ve come a long way from living out of the back of my car.…
Wendel Dandridge, OZY Educator Award winner
It certainly wasn’t what I had envisioned for my senior year at Morehouse, but after three years of spending beyond my means and trying too hard to impress my friends — and after receiving one pink eviction notice — it was the only path left to get my degree. The hardest part was keeping the truth from my parents. I thought, “If they find out I’m living out of my car, they’ll make me come home.”
When I walked up to get my diploma in the spring of 2007, receiving a bachelor’s in religion and psychology, I held my head high. I was the first person in my family to earn a degree and I knew that it would open doors for me. My parents and two sisters came to watch. After the ceremony, my mom looked me in the eyes and said, “You made it through.” At that moment, I realized that she knew I had been living out of my car. Both of us broke down crying. One of my sisters captured the moment in a photo, and often, when confronted with a challenge, I glance at it.
Luckily, life has been an uphill journey ever since. Immediately after graduation, I went to work as a youth pastor at a Christian Baptist church. I enjoyed what I was doing, but one of my undergrad religion professors and my mentor, Philip Dunston, encouraged me to keep pushing. “You’ll knock out your master’s in three years, and you can go on to get your Ph.D. too,” he often told me.
I began studies at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta for a master’s of divinity in the psychology of religion, a subject I was drawn to because of my rocky past with religious establishments. I was raised Christian Baptist and had been dismissed from a church because of my radical views on religion and the church’s responsibility within the community. I had seen too many people turned away during trying times in their lives, and I wanted to better understand the underpinnings of the disconnect with religions and the LGBT community, single-parent households and the homeless population, to name just a few. Then, I went on to get my Ph.D. in Christian ministry.
At Clark Atlanta University, I teach courses about biblical heritage and the African-American religious experience. My classes are 100 percent dialogue, with some 30 students and me diving into meaningful conversations about how philosophy, religion, social justice and psychology co-exist. We tackle big questions, like “what is sin?” or delve into the concept of Christ consciousness.
In 2014, I invested almost $20,000 of my own money in the first year to start the Worship Center, in Atlanta. Our church vision and mission is connecting people back to God and humanity. I rented out the ballroom of the DoubleTree hotel, which we continue to do today. On Sundays, we’re in and out within an hour, there’s coffee and tea, we’re open and conversational. There’s a good blend of what the world really looks like — across all different ethnicities, ages and classes — in our gatherings. Since the biblical text makes it clear that Jesus spent more time in the streets, in people’s homes and in the fields than in the church, we also get out in the streets, get our hands dirty and try to really make a difference.
Nowadays, I drive a black Nissan Altima and come back home to an apartment. Out of my living room, I coach people virtually and provide webinars through my company, Dare to Dream Coaching. I’ve counseled my students on how to start their own businesses, transition to a new career and better manage their time, among other life lessons.
I’ve come a long way from living out of the back of my car, but I don’t know if I’d be the educator I am today without having first hit rock bottom.